Efficient processes are empowered by teamwork

You can have an efficient process, but if it’s not empowered by teamwork, it will fail.

I was at Chicago’s O’Hare airport yesterday.  (It must be one of the busiest places in the world.). In order to move people, feed people, calm people, secure people and direct people at a place like O’Hare you’ve got to have efficient processes. Over 190,000 people travel through O’Hare every day.

As I queued up to grab a some food at Quiznos, the line moved quickly as the cashiers punched in the orders and slapped change back into customers’ hands.  The team working to fill my order had a good separation of duties, working in specialized roles passing me down the line.  However, the last team member who was responsible for putting on the fresh veggies and toppings and packaging the final product couldn’t keep pace.  Things quickly backed up.  The toaster was getting jammed, sandwiches were burning and some key supplies had run out.

What happened next amazed me.  With a break in the number of people arriving, the other team members turned aside to other duties.  Cleaning the counter, re-organizing the chips, and other non-essential things.   They weren’t remotely doing anything to help the pile of burnt sandwiches that was piling up (or the growing group of impatient customers).  They were still working in their part of the process, just not helping their teammate.

I learned an important lesson watching this team.  Each of these people were really good at what they did.  However, when one of them ran into trouble, they didn’t compensate or work together to bring things back to an optimal place.

We operational-types are really good at coming up with efficient processes.  However, if the process becomes robitic it can fail.   Your team needs to be empowered to evaluate the process in real-time and make adjustments accordingly.  In this case, one team member could have quickly helped assemble 2 or 3 of the backed up sandwiches to bring things back to par.  In an IT context, check out how Trey is helping his team become versatilists.

Likewise, in leadership, I realize that I can get narrowly focused on my ‘operations’.  I need to remember to think about the other leaders in my organization.  Where are they failing, how can I help to make them look good?  How do I deploy my resources in real-time to drive forward the mission we are all on?

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